LAS Abroad: Impressions of Vancouver

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We watch the lunar eclipse from Stanley Park. Tonight, the moon is the moon of Nick Drake and Neil Young: pink and harvest and super, in all senses. She appears gradually, first as smoke, then as something more. A growing murmur spreads through the crowd. I move to get a better view, weave through crowds of stargazers and stoners and other Vancouver sky searchers.

I point my camera at the sky. The blood supermoon over the city. Downtown’s high-rise lights reflected in the bay.

At UBC, I walk 15 minutes from my on-campus residence flat, through the Pacific Sprit National Park and onto a beach. “Clothing optional” warns the battered wooden sign.

At Birmingham, I walk 15 minutes from my gradually subsiding terraced house, through the remains of last night’s chicken massacre and onto a building site.

I’m not passing judgment on either walk but the experience is very different.

I take courses in Theatre, Creative Writing, Film Studies, Philosophy, Art History and Visual Art. I am Mr Employable.

However, the more time I spend around people for whom Liberal Arts is university, the more I am convinced that it is absolutely the best way to do things.

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Downtown is surrounded by water on three sides and as a result is mostly vertical. The architects of the centre have built upwards rather than outwards. Therefore, there is a feeling of compactness; I can explore the city and, even in eight months, make it my own.

In 30 minutes, I can walk through the West End’s luxury residential tower blocks; down Davie Street with its gay bars and bright pink bus stops; past the smug restaurants and galleries of Yaletown; into Chinatown which seems alive with construction and food; avoid the temptation of West Pender’s ramshackle bookshops; down the Granville strip illuminated with commercialism and seediness; into gentrified Gastown which fashionably sits in absolute denial of its past and present; up one block to Hastings – the original Skid Row – and east through drug markets and homelessness. Pieces of a contradictory jigsaw, tightly fitting and flowing with life.

And out of all of this, Brewery Creek quickly becomes a favourite area of mine. Lets just say that it is very aptly named.

I realise why four years at university is a good idea.

I have to submit an original piece of conceptual digital art. This, for me, is new and exciting.

So, naturally, I walk for 3 hours along the 99 express bus route from the University bus loop, all the way down to Broadway at Commercial. It is the busiest bus route in North America. Every time a 99 bus passes me I turn to my right and take a photograph.

I like to think that this is a comment about displacement and discovery, about the observation of the everyday in the face of commercial mass transit.

And because it’s supposed to be conceptual art, I believe it. Just.

Tomorrow, I have a lecture on Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. I have to read Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. I find Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness interesting, in theory. In practise, I hate Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and I hate his Nothingness as well.

The mountains loom constantly like a well-worded threat. Or a memory. It is winter now and they are dusted with just the right amount of snow to be optimally photogenic.

I don’t ski.

I have skied before but that was on a small hill covered in wet rope on the outskirts of Gloucester. I imagine this is a different experience to doing it on snow down a Canadian mountain. In fact, I suspect this means that I have negative experience of skiing. I have friends who have gone up to Whistler, however, and they say that the views are beautiful. I believe them, completely.

Down below, on the sidewalk (never pavement), the resorts emerge from the forest with a strange elegance. In the evening, their lights hover over the city like alien constellations.

Occasionally, we go to a place where we float in sensory deprivation tanks for 90 minutes. It is pitch black, silent and motionless. After a while I tend to forget where my arms are. It’s an experience I can heartily recommend.

Afterwards we go to the pub.

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I now know and am friends with people from Canada, the USA, France, Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Brazil, Mexico, Japan, Chile and South Korea, as well as meeting someone that lived a ten second walk away from me in Birmingham last year, whom I had neither met nor seen before.

It is a massive small world.

University work is assigned constantly throughout the year. This means that you have to work more but also that you have to think more. This takes some getting used to. It feels beneficial in the end though.

I secure a paid Dramaturgy internship at The Arts Club, one of the foremost theatres for Canadian new writing development. Dramaturgy is a strange professional area that means different things depending on where you are in the world and who you work for. In North America, it means working with writers on new plays, as well as more “traditional” dramaturgical work – compiling resource books on productions and so on. It’s the kind of thing I’d like to do back in the UK and any experience will be worth it. I’ve had enough practice explaining my degree to be ok with explaining a job as well.

I play David Bowie all day. His last album is perfection.

I turn 21 on the second day of the second semester (never term). There is a party on Friday and it isn’t shut down at 1am like on-campus parties normally are. I think this must be a sign of something but I‘m not sure what.

We turn away from the moon and leave her hanging in the midnight air. Instantly she grows bigger, fills our mind’s eyes with her rose blood.

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We merge back into the smear of city traffic. On the first of our three buses home, a man with a bulging combat coat and impressively unkempt beard tells us, “The end is coming!” He is talking about the incoming Liberal Prime Minister and he stinks of medicinally legal weed.

We, however, hear his prophecy and cannot shake the moon from our minds.

And when, in three months time and it is time for me to leave, Vancouver will be similarly unshakeable. I will miss its staggering natural and urban beauty and the way the buses always run on time. I will miss its bars and cafés, its hipster hangouts and microbreweries. I will miss its unmistakeable feel and the way that everywhere doesn’t so much close at night, as it comes to an elegant pause. And I will miss the moments when the sun finally falls below the horizon, when all that is left of its deep setting amber are lilac clouds and distant ocean warmth, when the mist rolls down the mountains and welcomes in the evening.

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Words and pictures by Sam Forbes, 3rd year Drama Major and Liberal Arts and Sciences student; currently studying at the University of British Colombia on Year Abroad.

Liberal Arts and Sciences Cadbury Research Library Internship

By Zoe Emery (year 3 Liberal Arts and Sciences)

pic 127There is something incredibly exciting about handling first-editions of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, as well as Queen Victoria’s personal diary, the Mingana collection (a group of Middle Eastern manuscripts dating from as early as the 6th century), ancient Egyptian papyri, Neville Chamberlain’s copy of Mein Kampf and a letter describing his first impressions of Hitler. I got to do all of this and more as part of my four week internship with the Cadbury Research Library.

For me, one of the best things you can get out of a job is variation. As part of my role here, I, along with two other interns, was not only involved in cataloguing archives, but also helped to create an exhibition on travel diaries in the Main Library and on Flickr, helped conserve a number of documents, taught a group of school children and created several Vox Pop videos to encourage students to use the CRL and its fantastic resources.

Furthermore, we received a series of in depth tours by members of staff, module-choicesshowing us the ins and outs of their different roles as archivists, librarians and conservators. From a personal point of view, it was fascinating to see how the Research Library worked behind the scenes, from the perspective of an employee on a day to day basis. My cataloguing project focused on Bridget Stevenson, a woman who worked for the Save the Children Fund, in German refugee camps from 1948-1962. Steph, an early modern History PhD student, looked at 20th century records of the Women’s Amateur Athletics Association, and Katherine, who just graduated with an English Literature degree, worked on University of Birmingham Medical Society.

Liberal Arts and Sciences is a degree that encourages you to step outside your boundaries, explore different subjects and broaden your wider interests. Having taken modules in Geology, Psychology, Spanish and French over the past two years, my subject choices did not naturally lend themselves towards applying for an internship typically based around History and Literature. However, internships like this allow you to test the waters. Moreover, there are an extensive variety of resources in the collection including Science, Medicine, Art, Sport, Archaeology, Anthropology and Politics, making this internship genuinely interesting to anyone from any walk of life.

Untitled-6Irrelevant of subject, the skills that I have learnt here will be invaluable in the wider working world. Throughout the past four weeks, I have developed my ability to work as part of a team, and as an individual in a professional environment, as well as time management, organisation and the ability to work to a deadline. We also learnt more specific skills including Photoshop, IT, research and conservation.

I can honestly say that I have taken so much away from this experience and have thoroughly enjoyed working with an incredibly lovely and welcoming team.

Our Flickr exhibition on travel diaries – https://www.flickr.com/photos/cadburyresearchlibrary/

http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/facilities/cadbury/index.aspx

To read about the job of an archivist – http://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/jenny-childs-day-life-archivist/

To see upcoming exhibition dates (Noel Coward & Transatlantic Style and Toc H. archive) – http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/facilities/cadbury/events/index.aspx

The Quran in Birmingham:

http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/news/latest/2015/07/quran-manuscript-22-07-15.aspx

Controlling Crypto-Currencies, June 2015

Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences was delighted to have the opportunity to sponsor a conference on crypto-currencies as part of our goal to foster lively debate on provocative and challenging topics. With Apple Pay just launched in the UK, and contactless payments becoming ever more normalised, exploring the ripple effect from crypto-currencies becomes increasingly important and urgent. University of Birmingham Law lecturer Dr Tatiana Cutts reports back from the conference, for Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences.

Tatiana writes:

In the year of the bailouts, 2008, The bankers were printing more debt for the state The dollar grew weaker, the big picture clear As they fed the hangover more Keynesian beer […] Who’s to blame, is this caused by desire for wealth? When perhaps the real problem is money itself! The idea isn’t new, maybe everything’s tanking ‘Cause society is built on fractional reserve banking And so called ‘‘investment’’ and attempted control May soon spiral fiat into a death roll […].

 — an Ode to Satoshi Nakamoto, “coretechs”

In 2008, in a paper published in an online cryptography forum under the name “Satoshi Nakamoto”, a writer presented the blueprint for a decentralised digital monetary system. Through that system, Nakamoto attempted to eliminate the risk of double spending without reliance upon trusted third parties, such as banks and credit-card providers. Bitcoin was introduced shortly afterwards as open-source software, and gained momentum gradually, as those with personal, economic and/or political agendas began to adopt the new technology. Bitcoin’s popularity increased rapidly when in 2011 Wikileaks announced that it would accept donations in Bitcoin. That decision resulted in one of the first significant spikes in value, and at the start of 2015 the value of one bitcoin stood at a little over $300.00. The Bitcoin system adheres closely to Nakamoto’s model. “Miners” solve complex computational problems by which transactions are verified and recorded in a public ledger (the “Blockchain”), in return for bitcoins. Users hold a private and public “key”, and release only the latter to make a payment. In this way, the system is entirely pseudonymous, and can be maintained and developed without the need for a central authority. Thus far, the number of Bitcoin transactions carried out each day across the globe has never exceeded 130,000, in comparison with approximately 295 million conventional payment transactions in Europe alone. Nonetheless, the European Banking Authority, the US Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCen”), the UK Financial Conduct Authority (“FCA”) and HM Treasury, amongst others, have accepted that the risks of crypto-currency are too many and too great to ignore. Further, the pressure from the Bitcoin community to develop clear rules is growing: service-providers want the consumer confidence associated with state approval, and need the support of traditional financial organisations in order to continue to grow. In many cases Bitcoin business are already engaged in anticipatory self-regulation. On 12 June 2015 Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences supported a conference on crypto-currencies, hosted at the University of Birmingham by Tatiana Cutts and Joanna Gray of the Law School. Its purpose was to bring together practitioners, stakeholders, financial regulators, and academics to discuss the most important issues raised by these developments, in order to create a solid research platform to inform emerging regulatory and private law frameworks. The day began with an introductory talk by Jonathan Levin of Chainalysis, who introduced some of the foundational concepts and fundamental questions in Bitcoin and distributed ledger technology. Next up was Dirk Haubrich of the European Banking Authority, who spoke about the Warning and Opinion issued by the EBA regarding consumer protection issues and pseudonymous payment mechanisms. To round of the first session, Robleh Ali, speaking on behalf of the Bank of England, spoke briefly about the Bank’s stance on crypto-currencies, and its nascent project to link decentralised and centralized payment systems to create a more efficient central banking network. The second session was comparative, and contrasted the UK approach to crypto-currencies with the American, Canadian and Australian frameworks. This created a foundation for a more in-depth look at the workings of distributed payments networks, with industry insights from Tom Robinson and Gareth Jenkins, and an analysis of the private law framework by Tatiana Cutts. The last session tested the boundaries of the subject, drawing in governance issues, regulation, privacy and security and emerging movements towards inclusivity in banking, addressing some of the more controversial aspects of cryptographic technology. It was clear from conversations on the day that technologies and research projects such as this are only the start of the fintech revolution, and that the way that we understand moral and economic debt, the way in which we calibrate value and think about ethereality in the context of money, status and property and – most important of all – the way we conceive of power and governance structures of our society are all changing at an unprecedented rate. This is an exciting time for those engaged in research in the Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences, and the conference will form the foundation for an ongoing collaborative project between Tatiana Cutts (Law) and Dr Matt Hayler (English), looking at “Money in the Age of Ubiquitous Computing”. For more information email t.cutts@bham.ac.uk or tweet @TatianaCutts Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences made live-streaming possible on the day, enabling the event to have a truly global reach, with over 1,000 people tuned-in. The videos can be viewed here.

LAS in Action: Old Books and New Technologies

As one of the new recruits to the Liberal Arts and Sciences team of tutors I’m gaining new perspectives on multi- and inter-disciplinarity within and beyond the University of Birmingham and, in turn, on my own work and that in my field.

As a medievalist I’ve long practised inter-disciplinarity in my research and teaching. I specialise in early English literature and one of my main interests currently is manuscripts and documents and all other material records of early writing. You might think that we would know almost all there is to know about them as they’ve been around for such a long time. Nothing could be further from the truth. As hand-written and hand-made artefacts, each manuscript and document is a unique witness to cultures of text production, writing and reading. Yet we don’t even know how many medieval manuscripts survive, and we only have sketchy pictures of, for example, how they were produced, who the scribes were, how readers engaged with books – the list of unanswered questions is endless. This means that a major source of evidence for a millennium’s human history still has huge untapped potential.

The LAS spirit of breadth across disciplines is crucial to unlocking the possibilities. In particular, sciences are beginning to play a key role. To give just a few examples, DNA analysis is being applied to the animal skin used to make parchment and spectroscopy has been used to discover the components of the pigments used to decorate books. Such techniques offer the possibility, eventually, of linking books to aspects of the wider economy and environment, to agriculture, butchery, and trade.

The key development, though, is digitisation. Medieval manuscripts are little known and understood in most part because they are scattered across the world in hundreds of different libraries and archives. A further barrier to accessibility is their sensitive conservation status. Over the past two decades major digitisation initiatives have been launched and for the first time in human history these unique objects are becoming available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.

Digitisation, though exciting, is producing its own problems. Digital media rapidly become obsolete: how can we ensure sustainability? Unlike digitised books, digitised manuscripts are not searchable automatically: how can we speed up analysis of this ‘big data’? Digital images are often subject to copyright restrictions: how can we resolve the intellectual property issues involved in using them in publications? Computer scientists, intellectual property lawyers, information scientists, archivists and librarians, and manuscripts scholars are working together to tackle these problems.

What better illustration of the relevance of the LAS ethos to solving today’s problems?

Wendy Scase (Liberal Arts team)